We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Photographer Forrest MacCormack takes aim at the color of night.
The sun has been gone for two hours, and the tree-lined field of Iwo Jima Park is lit by only the thin beam of a lamp strapped to Forrest MacCormack’s head. “I used to think that a full moon was the only time to go out to take pictures,” says the 33-year-old photographer. “When there was a moon so bright you could read a newspaper by it.” This night there is just a sliver hanging overhead, but these days almost any moon will do for MacCormack.
With 40 pounds of equipment belted to his athletic frame, he strides quickly toward the base of an enormous pin oak at the center of the park. “This is my oak tree,” he says affectionately. “It’s a fine ol’ specimen, as trees go. Perfect shape.” He puts down his pack, points his headlamp at the ground, and begins to unload his gear: a tripod, a cube-shaped camera, lenses, several snap-on film cartridges, a portable battery pack, a handheld spotlight, and a key ring holding a half-dozen colored filters.
MacCormack has photographed at night in this park before. He points out a few fig and chestnut trees that he’s worked with in the past, but they don’t appeal to him the way the pin oak does. Making color photographs of nighttime landscapes is his “all-consuming passion.” When a full moon is up, it can keep him awake and roving area parks and woods as many as three nights a week. “I’ll see something that looks good during the day,” he says, “and I’ll think, I have to come back and look at that at night. I can get a little possessed.”
Turning his back to the light of D.C. shining brightly across the river, MacCormack sets his camera on the tripod and peers through his viewfinder at the shadowy outline of the oak. Satisfied with the composition, he clicks off his headlamp, opens the camera’s shutter to start the exposure, and steps away.
“People tend to think of photographs as being taken in a snap,” he explains, “because most people take pictures where there is a lot of light or outside in the daytime. But at night, there is a lot of light out there—you just have to let it collect.”
MacCormack next assembles his battery pack and spotlight, then fishes around for the palette of gels that he has clipped to his belt, coming up with one labeled “STRAW” in bold print. He tilts his head to one side, considering for a moment where the color might best accentuate the tree’s gnarled branches.
“It really is like painting,” he says, fitting the filter to the spot and flicking the pale yellow stream of light over the top and edges of the oak. “Hmmm. Some lavender would be nice there.” He crosses right in front of the camera, switching to a purple filter for the trunk. The film will pick up the colors and even mix the hues, but the photographer will remain invisible.
“At night in the city, you get really hellish lighting with the streetlights and all,” he says, making a face. “So I go out where there is just the moonlight, and then I can add my own color in.”
Twenty-two minutes have passed, according to MacCormack’s Indiglo watch, and he closes the shutter. He says he gauges his exposure times “with a lot of guesswork,” but it’s a fairly educated guess: His Palm Pilot’s Planetarium program shows that the new moon over Rosslyn is currently at 3.2 percent visibility, with just 10 percent above the horizon.
At the end of a good evening, he will go home with 10 shots. “Since the exposures are 10 to 20 minutes, I’m lucky if I make that many in a night,” he says. “I spend a lot of time composing each picture. You don’t really know what you’ve got until you print it, but you have a feeling. I’m literally working in the dark out here.”
A few days before he visits his oak tree, MacCormack sits in the living room of his Arlington apartment, surrounded by a collection of pinhole cameras. Some are antiques; a few others he made himself out of cardboard oatmeal canisters. He is musing about the sky, riffling through a stack of prints to illustrate his points. “There is color in the sky,” he says, “even at night, but it is never going to show up when you are near bright city lights. Out where there’s just moonlight, I can get the sky to come up.”
He pulls out a few photos for closer inspection, squinting his blue eyes in the light of an overhead lamp before deciding to switch it off. In one print, a spindly roadside tree near Skyline Drive bathes in a pool of bright fuchsia, the color pulsating against the chalky sky. In another, washed all silver by the moonlight, an orange light smolders from inside a railroad tunnel like the headlight of an oncoming ghost train. In one more, the surging waters of Great Falls stall into a creeping fog.
MacCormack began taking nighttime shots a little over a decade ago, but his photographic career got its start a few years before that, after a biking accident ruptured his spleen and sidelined his teenage dreams of a BMX racing career. He then channeled his gearhead tendencies into photography, snapping pictures of his racer friends and working as a staff photographer for his high school yearbook in Raleigh, N.C. His interest in the art grew more serious after graduation and led him to New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology. It’s there that he began experimenting with night photography, shooting the urban landscape of parking lots and garages and playing with the effects of streetlights, moonlight, and strobes.
After finishing school in 1993 with a B.A. in illustration photography, MacCormack moved to the Washington area. Hoping to build a foundation as a professional photographer by working with those already established in the business, he placed advertisements in the back pages of trade publications under “Assistants Available.” For seven years, freelance assistantships continued his technical education as he worked under such prominent photographers as Life magazine’s Joe McNally.
“I must have worked with over a hundred photographers in those years,” MacCormack says. “They would say, ‘We are coming to D.C. to photograph Michelle Pfeiffer or the Hope Diamond,’ or whatever, and I would do anything that needed to be done: lugging gear, renting vehicles, scouting locations, setting up lights. It was like boot camp for being a photographer.”
In 1998, MacCormack spent time traveling the country assisting local architectural photographer Walter Smalling with work for two books on historic homes. “I really got into staying up late,” MacCormack says, “which you have to do in architectural photography so you don’t disturb the people who work and live in the buildings. We would go in at 11 and stay until 7 a.m.”
Soon after, MacCormack started to pursue his interest in night photography in earnest, beginning a yet-unfinished series of nighttime images of the 45 or so bridges on the main branch of the Potomac River, from D.C. to Cumberland, Md. After abandoning a large-format camera as too cumbersome for nighttime use, he began using a medium-format outfit loaded with tungsten-balanced film, which is actually designed to be used indoors. It corrects indoor light, which is yellow-red, to white. Used outside, however, the film enhances the bluer cast of sunlight—in this case, reflected from the moon—which gives MacCormack’s photos an eerie, pale-azure glow.
Just over a year ago, MacCormack began using a color-filtered spotlight to paint his night landscapes with even more color. His light-painted photos, taken in secluded parts of the District, Virginia, Maryland, and Maine, have proved to be his most ambitious long-term project. “I try to present the landscapes as they are,” he says, “but with these tools I have more control. I like that I can make things look better than they would during the day, a little more dramatic. The camera reveals things you could never see out there with your eyes.”
MacCormack shuffles the pile of prints and picks out one that he is especially fond of: an image of the pin oak from Iwo Jima Park, taken in the springtime when the tree was full of leaves. It is light-painted subtly, with vibrant yet natural-looking yellows; it looks wet, as if it had just emerged whole from the ground. MacCormack wants to photograph the tree in all seasons, replicating the same composition.
“Look at that warm lighting around the ground,” he says, “and the gold up in the branches. With the light-painting, I can decide what areas to leave dark, where to add color. I didn’t go very bold here, because it would have been garish.”
He looks at the photo for a long time. “It would never look like that during the day,” he says affectionately. “It would just be kind of a drab oak tree.”
MacCormack spends his days doing freelance editorial photography for USA Today, Washington Flyer, Washington Business Forward, and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. He’s also a part-time photo editor for the Agence France-Presse news service. Although his professional career keeps him busy, it’s also flexible enough to allow for his nighttime expeditions.
“I try to go out when I know that I have the day off the next day and I can sleep in,” he says. “I’ll have to stop when the sun starts to come up, and then I get stuck in rush-hour traffic trying to get home to go to sleep.”
Until recently, though, MacCormack’s biggest artistic difficulty wasn’t fighting D.C. traffic but processing his color prints. Local color rental labs are largely limited to student use, and without his own darkroom, MacCormack was obliged to make regular trips to New York City so he could print his work himself. “I would go there for the weekend and crash on a friend’s couch and just live in a rental darkroom,” he remembers. “But otherwise, I would have had to hand my film over to some lab.”
About a year ago, a colleague referred him to Photoworks, an imaging center and gallery in the Baltimore neighborhood of Hampden that has one of the few rental color-processing labs outside of New York. “I would be waiting at the door when they opened, and I wouldn’t leave again until 10 at night,” MacCormack says. His constant presence eventually caught the attention of gallery director Sarah Reed, and the gallery is currently hosting his first solo show, on view through April 3.
One piece from the Photoworks exhibition, a print of Great Falls, was also juried into the 2002 Bethesda International Photography Competition, currently at Bethesda’s Fraser Gallery. The show was judged by local photographer Maxwell MacKenzie, best known for his expansive landscapes of the Midwest. At the March 8 opening, MacCormack’s piece won Best in Show, earning him a solo exhibition of new work at the gallery’s Georgetown branch next year.
The photographer is modest about all this recent attention, however. “Yeah, it’s really nice,” he concedes, before steering the conversation into talk about his newest direction for his light-painted landscapes: petroglyphs.
Recently, MacCormack has taken to generating his own system of pictograms on his Macintosh to project onto rocks and other surfaces in his compositions. This experiment is holding his interest for now, allowing him to tinker with a new light source. Perhaps more important, though, the new technique has meant some additions to his ever-expanding equipment pack: He now carries a slide projector, as well as a device that converts battery current to AC to run it with.
“I just wanted to see how the projector would even work, what it would look like,” he says. “I can project anything into the picture, even other photographs.
“I don’t like graffiti much,” he continues, “but it reminds me of graffiti in that you look at it and wonder, How did that get up there?” CP